by Barbara Joans
hree days ago, I picked up my new bike, a Harley-Davidson Lowrider (FXD). She’s black, of course, and incredibly beautiful. She’s streamlined and sleek and powerful. Since she arrived I have been able to focus upon nothing but my bike. All else pales. She calls to me. I sit in my bedroom, the garage on the other side of the wall (this is California), and the bike keeps calling to me.
“Am I crazy?” I ask my husband. “I keep talking to my bike.”
“No,” he answers with great confidence. “You are just obsessed. I’ve been there myself.”
I go out to the garage at night to sit on her. She is beautiful but she is not my first. I have owned and loved other bikes. I should be used to this experience but I am not. I have never felt this strongly about a bike before. My husband calls it obsession. I call it Bike Lust.
Only once before, 45 years ago, did I experience a similar addiction. That was for my 1950 Steinway Concert Grand piano. A totally magnificent instrument–I would have slept under it if my parents had let me.
Normally, I do not covet things. I seemed to have missed the typical American socialization process. I crave neither wealth, security, fame, nor possessions. Most of the time things bore me. Much of my adult life has been spent poor–sometimes welfare-poor, other times merely impoverished. I raised my kids as Greenwich Village street urchins. They were the children of hippie, radical, commune-living, counterculture, drug-crazed, beatnik, feminist, freaked-out anthropology dropouts. The kids turned out great.
Through all my radical, wandering, revolutionary days, I studied anthropology. From the welfare lines, I wrote field notes. From the anti-war movement jails in Washington, I wrote field notes. From the feminist minefields, I wrote field notes. In the early ’70s, I got a terrible note from the City University of New York. It said: Return immediately or be dropped from the Ph.D. program in anthropology. That note found me stoned in the middle of a commune in Oregon. I returned. There are only a few things that have been absolutely consistent in my life. Anthropology is one of them. Motherhood is another. Unregenerate heterosexuality is a third. I have always been mated. That pretty much sums it up. A mother fucking anthropologist.
And I’m old. I rode with a guy last month who wore a T-shirt that said Old Age Ain’t for Sissies, and he’s right. It’s not just the arthritis and bone aches and the rotten, falling-apart-body miseries. It’s the lack of information. We age. How are we supposed to behave? How are we supposed to act our age?
As my birthday closed my sixth decade, I looked around for others who had traveled those paths before me. I looked for some clues, some precious signs that say–this way, this is the way to grow.
Unfortunately, I am a woman of America, and my country does not regard my aging with respect. Fortunately, I learned a long time ago to disregard my culture’s designs on me and forge my own patterns. For my sixtieth birthday, I rode my beautiful Harley Low Rider home. I figured that this was a good way to start the beginning of my old age. This will be a good way to spend my sixties.
I started riding four years ago. Actually, I started passengering five years ago. It was a conscious choice. My husband and I had been together 15 years and something had to be done. Lots of things keep couples together: money, kids, convenience, inertia. After the bloom is off the butt and lust has turned to lethargy, something is needed to spice up the romance. Some folks turn to adultery. Some divorce, seeking in a new mate some quality missed in the old one. Some stay single. None of these options appealed to me. I wanted my old mate and I wanted some spice, too.
I looked around. I checked out our options. When we were young (he, though, is still in the early blush of middle age), political passions fueled our lives and spiced our marriage. Nothing gets the adrenaline moving like a good confrontation with the cops. But in my elder state, I am more likely to have a drink with a cop than dis one. My husband and I shared too few activities, hobbies, or interests to spice a life with them. My friends bored him. His friends lived on the Internet. We were pathetic. Here we were, inching toward marital mediocrity and no relief in sight. Then he bought a bike.
My husband has been riding motorcycles almost all his life. But ever since he returned from Vietnam, it became a serious if quiet passion. Through a long, busy, messy, and moving life, his love of bikes endured. Mostly, during Harley-Davidson’s lean and terrible years, he rode Hondas. He had no problems with the Harleys’ kick starts, but hated doing all the maintenance. Like a number of old bikers, he had fallen in love with Harleys during his youth but never quite got up the money to buy one.
We moved to San Francisco and all that changed. We were both employed at the same time. Revelation! We became middle class. What a hoot. We could now own things. He wanted a bike. He wanted a Harley. I figured, why not? It might just give us a much-needed shared interest/activity. For him it was the realization of a dream. For me it was a totally new experience. Who knew it would become my obsession? Who knew that it would be my way to enter my sixties?
At first, I passengered. At 55, I thought it absolutely amazing that I managed to get on the back. True, Ken had provided a passenger seat for me that was as big as a barn and as sturdy as an oak, but still I was scared. Actually, I was terrified. The movies make it look so easy. You throw a leg over and away you go. Riding is as American as apple pie, country living, and Norman Rockwell. The only problem is that I am a New York Jew, reared in the streets of Manhattan and the side streets of Brooklyn. Being sedentary, sickly, utterly nonmechanical, and a lover of the great indoors, I was more suited to appreciate museums than motorcycles.
Nothing in my urban, indoor, East Coast experience prepared me for the glory and god-awfulness of riding a bike. When you ride you are right in the middle of nature. When it rains, you get very wet. When the sun is overhead, you can swelter. Protection from the elements is so minimal that you make friends with the elements or you don’t ride. My entire past city life of college teaching, child-rearing, poetry writing, piano playing, and urban radical activism left me utterly unprepared for the wonder of riding the wind.
Ken had patience. I had my stubborn fanaticism. I refused to let my innate cowardice rule my life. I learned to passenger.
Then one day, my old friend Phyllis Chesler called. “What do you mean, you are passengering!” she rumbled. “Why are you not riding? I want to ride on the back of your bike. I want to be the girl on the back.”
What a concept. Could I ride? To be honest, the thought had never occurred to me. I saw riding as a male province and as a young woman’s province. If I had been 20, no, ten years younger, maybe then I could have been the rider. But I saw so many other women riding. I thought, why not? At 56, with lots of help from my friends, I took a beginner riders course. I bought my first bike, a small but wonderful 250cc Honda Rebel, and took to the roads. Actually, I took to the back roads, side streets, and alleyways.
The day I passed my motorcycle operator’s test was one of the proudest days of my life. I remember grinning all the way home. It was right up there with earning a Ph.D., birthing two kids, and marrying for love.
I rode my Rebel with great timidity. While my friends roared down the roads, I putt-putted my slow way home. But I rode. And slowly the love of riding began to change my life. It was becoming not merely an important activity; it started shaping my life. It was time for my Harley.
I bought my Sportster. This bike was bigger, heavier, and far more powerful. A Harley Hugger 883cc Sportster is no slouch of a bike. It is formidable. It also messes with the mind. All of a sudden, I could leap tall buildings with a single bound. When my bike bucked and growled and kicked me off, I picked her up. Alone and trembling, I managed to haul a 500-pound bike to her wheels. I could not possibly do that. Yet I rode away and to this day do not quite know how I did it.
For two years I rode my Sporty. Then it was time to move up, to take the final step. It was time to buy the big twin. All 600-plus pounds of black, shiny, 1,340cc Low Rider. Sleek, lusty, powerful, and beautiful. She is all the things I would be in flesh, if I could. She roars. She sets off every car alarm within a three-block area. She purrs and prances and preens. She sets me free.
When all you shrinks get done howling with laughter, consider the alternatives. As we age we lose a great variety of faculties. We maintain some important ones, but none of them will push us back into youthful agility or nubile sexuality. The sensual pleasures remain to us but have to be coaxed into life. My bike, my Lady, lets me ride the wind. No, she entices me to join her in the pleasures of the ride. She reminds me that life at any age can be exciting and adventuresome. She reminds me that the spirit does not age. When I ride I am ageless, timeless, and fearsome. A perfect image for my sixties.
Barbara Joans, Ph.D., director of the Merritt Museum of Anthropology, is chair of the anthropology department of Merritt College in Oakland, California. She has written for Off Our Backs.